Published on August 4, 2022 at 2:14 pm CDT
Music can be viewed and “read” as a tool that shares a culture’s values, roots, and history.
That’s the content of this Saturday’s illustrated musical presentation presented by the McLean County Historical Museum at the Common Public Library. Catalina Maria Johnson, a Chicago-based journalist, provides a wide-ranging overview of musical milestones in the US Latino over the past 75 years to understand the history, roots and concerns of Latinos in the country.
The host and producer of Beat Latino on Vocalo, a Chicago public media program, credits the persistence of a Mexican mother and German/Swedish father for what she calls the extraordinary gift of a bilingual and bicultural heritage. He said that thanks to them he grew up in two cities: St. Louis, Missouri and San Luis Potosí, Mexico.
Johnson spoke with WGLT’s Jon Norton in this lightly edited interview.
WGLT: Your presentation will focus on how the numerous genres of Latino music relate to Latino history in the US and beyond.
Yes, more or less. I’m not a historian, this is about music. But at some point the music began to reveal the historical aspects of the relationship. Between the United States and its neighbor to the south, Mexico… and I’m half Mexican… or other Latin countries or Puerto Rico. And some of the songs became beacons in the sense that they drew attention to historical events that are not widely commented on, or led me to investigate.
And I realized that it’s a little bit like an underdog history book, because when you’re in a certain position, sometimes you don’t write history and you don’t write news. But you’re going to sing about it. So, it’s a way of revealing music rather than cultural history.
It’s almost like Chuck D from Public Enemy saying his band is kind of the CNN of black people in the early 90s.
Exactly. And some of that comes directly from the tradition of troubadours and telling the news like that. There is a fine line between the troubadours and the things you comment on and the things I comment on. This is not a history lesson. This is not a history book or a chronology in the sense that it happened and happened. It is more of a sprinkling of milestones so that one can comment on how the various relationships have been reflected. If you didn’t want to understand where this song came from or what this song is about or why there was such music in the USA, for example where this population came from. a cultural community that created music.
Care to give an example or two?
I don’t want to have too many spoilers, but like what I just mentioned… New Orleans Jazz Fest and listening to a band and of course it was Caribbean music. And the main vocalist was Honduran. From the comments. I learned that there is a Honduran community in New Orleans. Around the same time, I became very interested in Garifuna music, which is black Honduran music. This is a community that is black and indigenous and depending on where the borders fell, either Honduras or Guatemala.
And part of that population… apart from their own language, the Garifuna speak either Spanish or English. So, New Orleans also has a Garifuna community. And then there’s this band at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. And I’m like, “Why is there a Honduran community in New Orleans?” This led me to research and realize that because United Fruit, a US company that did some pretty terrible things on their way through Central America, they were allowed to work in New Orleans because it was a port and bananas were shipped from Caribbean ports and Honduras. This was in the 70s. So out of that relationship comes the Honduran community and the black Honduran community in New Orleans. And I wouldn’t have found out if it wasn’t for the music.
I want to go back to something you said earlier, and I can’t remember exactly how you said it. But I think you characterized it as realizing that there was a moment with this music where these stories were being told.
Some of them … troubadours or Mexican traditions, like corridos, which became very popular during the revolution … epic stories of heroes, so the development of this genre, which is almost directly historical, if you will, because it was created to tell stories about the exploits of heroes and horses. (laughs) Horses were also often the heroes. It’s at least a few hundred years old,
Is music in general, but perhaps more specifically in this conversation, being taken seriously as a historical, cultural understanding of ourselves?
I always take it seriously. I’d say if you’re familiar with Afropop around the world, that’s their focus. I think it’s an element, but I’d say probably not from historians, maybe Howard Zinn, who’s a different kind of historian, but generally, no, it’s not. That’s part of it. This is not the history that is in the textbooks. And precisely because… to be in the textbooks… the history books are written by the winners. You know, it’s not. These are not victories. Often these stories are behind wins that aren’t there.
And Latino music, especially here in Illinois, doesn’t have many outlets outside of Chicago. How might wider access to this music change perceptions of people in Illinois?
Oh, absolutely. I think sometimes. It is the most human form of expression. I mean, there might be people who don’t like music, but I think most everyone likes some kind of music. I think that music, cuisine and food are points where people find a common language. What you eat changes you. When you hear a song, it changes you whether you really acknowledge it or want it or even care. It becomes a part of you. So it’s a way of gently introducing ourselves to sometimes difficult or difficult ideas, or in this case, the difficult relationships that we’ve had as a country with almost everyone.
Catalina Maria Johnson’s presentation is on Saturday, August 6th. The program starts at 13:00.